Single atom imaging

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Physics


For an ageing population, medical imaging is increasingly important in diagnosing serious conditions such as cancer. Two important techniques make heavy reliance on radioactive tracers introduced into the body. These are positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). The former relates to the introduction of beta-decaying isotopes like F-18 into the body which are selectively taken up by specific organs and cancers. In the decay of this isotope, two gamma rays are emitted near back to back. The location of the source is then established from the interception of a very large ensemble of these tracks.

We have come up with a new concept for medical imaging, building on the PET imaging concept, but which has the potential to locate a single radioactive atom. This is because the isotope suggested, Tc-92, decays by successive time-ordered gamma rays. We can determine the direction of these emitted gamma rays and hence determine the point of emission. This is very different to standard PET imaging as we locate one atom and not a very large ensemble via a statistical approach. This could offer unprecedented sensitivity and/or ability to use very low doses of radioactive tracer with strong benefits to the patient. This new technique could also have important applications to industrial flow processes.

We intend to carry out a feasibility study by performing simulations. This will specify the best geometry for a novel scanner and determine the sensitivity achievable.

Planned Impact

This proposal concerns the development of a new technique in medical imaging which would allow the location of a single radioactive atom at the point of its decay. This cannot be achieved by any current technique and affords unprecedented sensitivity. This could allow imaging with small dose and consequent benefit to the patient. It could also find application to industrial processes e.g. study of flows. The impact to society could therefore be very high - particularly in the area of medical imaging - which is increasingly important for an ageing population. There is also scope for impact in wider industry. Development and licensing of a new technique to UK industry could also lead to strong economic benefit in the UK.


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Description Developed a concept for a new technique in medical imaging. This was evaluated through Monte Carlo simulation.
Exploitation Route I hope to take this further through building a collaboration and applying for funding from a medical research council.
Sectors Healthcare

Description We have built a lot on this learning about PET and similar imaging in connection with further projects. In 2014, we began working with colleagues at the Department of Chemistry, University of Hull where we developed miniaturised detectors for assaying the activity of PET isotopes. A UK patent for this was filed in March 2016. The patent process is now going to the next stage. Hull intend to exploit the patent as part of the activity of a spin-out company.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Societal

Description Nuclear physics outreach work 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact For the last ten years, I have been involved in a whole range of outreach activities related to nuclear physics, from lectures to local groups e.g. astronomical societies to lectures at major science festivals. A major focus has been on providing continuous professional development courses for teachers. These have taken place at several science learning centres including National Science Learning Centre in York. In addition, they have been given at Rutherford Lab and elsewhere. Around 500 teachers have been reached over the years.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006,2007,2008,2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2015,2016